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Frontman Steve Kilbey talks forty years with The Church

interviews Jun 02, 2020

This interview is part of a series where we catch up with singers, actors, performers and arts industry insiders to talk about work, life and creativity.

It’s been 40 years since The Church first hit the Aussie music scene. The secret to frontman Steve Kilbey’s success? Stubborn perseverance and a whole lot of luck. A disinterested public servant in Canberra, Steve’s initial goal was rather simple. 'My ambition was to make a single and go to Melbourne. I thought if I could get one single, so for the rest of my life I could go "Look I made a single and I went and did a tour in Melbourne" that was it.'

Photos by Charles Greene

Needless to say, he exceeded this ambition long ago, releasing hit after hit and touring countries across the globe. 'Forty years later, it's all icing on the cake.' Steve credits a lot of his success to being at the right place at the right time, as The Church rode the 80s pub rock explosion. 'Always the main thing is luck. Luck. And then, I was a decent songwriter.' There’s no denying that a whole lot of talent helped The Church withstand the test of time, as Steve says 'Forty years is a long one in pop music!' He maintains that he would have done it all exactly the same, minus the heroin addiction of course and 'one or two girlfriends'.

'The songs I wrote have endured and they've sort of become anthems for people who liked them at the time. So we're part of the fabric, we’re the weave and woof of Australian life.'

'... we're part of the fabric, we’re the weave and woof of Australian life.'

'I was lucky that I was here when it happened I guess. If you've got a band now, especially now, where would you play? Nowhere. There's nowhere to play. But in those days there were thousands of gigs. You could play in Sydney for three weeks and still do a different gig every night.'

Like many musicians, COVID restrictions have forced Steve to get creative. On an almost-weekly basis, he’s been performing on Instagram, live from his living room. ‘It's not the same as the roar of the grease paint and the smell of the crowd’, but being a true performer Steve brings the same energy and playfulness to these virtual gigs.

‘I've come to think that every performance, whether it's to 50,00 people at a pop festival or to a bunch of people watching you on Instagram, is a sort of hurdle to get over. You've got to remember the words, you've got to play the instrument, you've got to... well, funny for me to say "sing in tune" 'cause I never do, and you've got to think up a way of being.'

Photos by Charles Greene

The required creativity of these past months has had an unexpected positive impact in some ways. 'I was in a rut as a solo performer, I was always playing the same old songs and now I realise I can play whatever I like. My guitar playing got a lot better and I was thinking about everything a lot more. So it was a blessing in disguise, for me. Not for all the people that lost their jobs and the people who died and all the other things that have happened, but for me, and the odd person out there, it's been a blessing.'

Looking toward the future, Steve hopes that with domestic restrictions easing, local live music will find a way to thrive. 'I guess we can tour Australia and acts like Bruce Springsteen won't be here to compete with. So maybe Australian bands will be like, after the cretaceous period ended and all the dinosaurs were gone, there's these mammals running around cleaning up.'

And make no mistake, Steve isn't one of the dinosaurs. 'I do hope to keep going until I drop. I don't want to retire, as long as somebody wants to hear me I'll do it, for sure, or until I can't do it anymore.'

'I don't want to retire, as long as somebody wants to hear me I'll do it'

Steve has certainly had his fair share of ups and downs throughout his rock 'n' roll journey, all of which have shaped him into the sixty-something-year-old that he is today. 'As you get older and older, people normally go two ways, they go a little nastier and bitter or they go "this is a fucking laugh" and I've gone for that. If you're an angry scruffy young man that's great when you're a young man. When you're older you shouldn't be angry and scruffy, otherwise you look like someone who's homeless or Van Morrison.'

Photos by Charles Greene
'When you're older you shouldn't be angry and scruffy, otherwise you look like someone who's homeless or Van Morrison.'

Even with all of his success, the gold records, the ARIA Hall of Fame induction, the grungy glitz and glamour, Steve doesn't take it all too seriously. 'You know that song merrily merrily life is but a dream? I'm really thinking that is the case. It didn't seem like that growing up, it seemed like everything was so important, and now it just seems like... it is a dream and when it's over it will seem like a dream and then we all come back to do it all over again.'

'So, from the perspective of eternity this is very small cheese isn't it? "Oh, I wrote a song and I was on a stage and I made a record" and it's like, what will it matter? I think that's the only way you can look at it, don't cling to it. All that struggling, all those arguments, all those fights and all that you know, anxiety, what did it mean? Where is it now?'

'I just think, for me I can't be like that serious sort of guy anymore and it goes a lot better to be a sort of regular Joe.' Sure, looking around, Steve’s apartment could be mistaken as the home of a 'regular Joe', as long as you ignore the gold records hanging on the wall.

Tabitha Gyde

Tabby loves puns and pop culture. She also enjoys eating, travelling, and overwatering her plants.